Approximately one year ago, it is fair to say that no Indian cricket fan had heard the name Rahul Johri. A successful executive with significant experience in the media business, Johri was appointed the first paid Chief Executive Officer of the Board of Control for Cricket in India on June 1, 2016. Back then, it was widely speculated that the old-school administrators (who had a tight grip on the running of the game through vote-banks and decades of holding office) would not look kindly at the arrival of an outsider in such a key position. It was thought that Johri would be tolerated, because the courts left the BCCI with no choice in the matter, but that he would have no real power or say in the manner in which the game was governed. Eight months later, Johri is practically the only man left standing with any decision-making authority.
The courts, and at their forefront Justices Lodha and Thakur, have been hailed as pioneers who took path-breaking and historic decisions. But, just as Arun Shourie pointed out on the subject of demonetisation, the very fact of something being extreme does not make everything about it right. There was no doubt that there was a lot that was wrong with the way cricket was being run in India – the manner in which certain individuals clung endlessly to power, the opaqueness of how state associations used the not inconsiderable funds that came their way year after year and the obvious skews in certain electoral processes that weighted things in favour of a powerful few, among other things. However, just as there was much to desire in terms of some of the individuals that occupied positions of power, there was a lot that was right about the sport in India. Apart from being the most popular and financially solvent, the team was in the pink of health in all formats, the support from fans and corporates was as strong as it had ever been and given the shambles that are other sporting bodies in India, the BCCI was far from uniquely incompetent.
Charged with deciding the quantum of punishment for two Indian Premier League teams who were suspended for alleged involvement of betting by key members of their ownership teams, the Lodha Committee’s brief expanded to looking into every last aspect of Indian cricket, thanks firstly to the BCCI’s inability to either take fair decisions about its own and later its open defiance of the highest authority in the land. The Lodha Committee as recommenders, followed by Justice Thakur as enforcer, decided that it was up to them to save Indian cricket. Exactly what they were saving Indian cricket from, however, is not entirely clear.
The BCCI’s approach to the recommendations was equally baffling. Not giving up till the final ball is bowled is an excellent way to play the game, but the BCCI’s approach was more akin to trying to resuscitate a corpse that had been shot, stabbed and garotted. To begin with, they did not approach the recommendations made to them in the spirit intended. Instead of extending an olive branch of sorts, implementing a majority of the recommendations and approaching the more contentious clauses in a reconciliatory manner, the Board believed it could brazen its way out of the situation, unused to coming up against an adversary that could not be bought by favours, browbeaten by power or simply ignored.
To be fair to the BCCI — and there is not a lot of that happening amidst the gloating sections who follow the game, but know little about what it takes to actually administer it — there were many recommendations made by the Lodha Committee that defied common sense. The first among these was the dismantling of the age-old process by which players were selected. Given the geographical vastness and complexities of India, it made perfect sense to have a selector from each of the five zones. Did this lead to parochialism? Decades ago this was a serious issue, but in the recent past, the number of players who made it to the highest level and stayed there, simply because they were from a certain city or had a powerful uncle, are few and far between.
It is worth remembering that the five-member zonal system is the one that allowed both a 16-year old Sachin Tendulkar to be blooded when the time was right, and for someone such as Robin Singh to emigrate to India from a country thousands of kilometres away and play 130-advantages of the system and the results it threw up on a consistent basis far outweighed the relatively minor number of instances where it failed to recognise the ability of a player, or overvalued another. Yet, this was something that the Lodha Committee, and Justice Thakur, in their wisdom, could not recognise.
The second major point of contention is the limiting of terms of office of any individual to a total of nine years, taking both time spent in office in state associations and the BCCI combined. And to further stick it in, there was a mandatory cooling-off period of two years after each three-year term. This effectively meant that nobody would be eligible to be president of the BCCI if they had spent any more than six years on the job in any capacity at either state or national level. How they expected anyone with so little experience to fully grasp the nuances of a complex job in a country such as India beggars belief. To draw an inexact but not absurd parallel, this is like expecting someone to become a Supreme Court judge after only six years’ experience of law.
What is even more inexplicable about this decision (which rendered virtually every cricket administrator in the country ineligible to hold office through a single court order) was the complete lack of an alternate plan. If, at one go, there was no single office bearer to run the game, was one CEO and a handful of employees expected to conduct literally thousands of days of domestic cricket each year, negotiate deals with sponsors and float and approve tenders with broadcasters, just to name a few major functions that BCCI office bearers had traditionally performed?
To say that cricket is too big in India to be affected and that the show must go on is easy, but the effect of the decisions of the court will not be known or felt immediately. But, to suggest that there will be no widespread implications is also wishful thinking. In one stroke, the courts rendered some of the most sought-after positions in administration — ones that the biggest businessmen and most powerful politicians scrapped over — utterly unattractive and even unviable. Just how will the brightest and best be attracted to the game, when they know they are little more than clerks, implementing the orders of one judge or another?
It is also vital to recognise that while there have been rotten eggs in the BCCI, who have used it to feather their nests and grow their fiefdoms — and this is a way of life in every walk of Indian society, of which even the judiciary is not an exception — there have been men of exceptional calibre who have given far more than they have taken. Where would cricket in Mumbai be without a Wankhede, or Tamil Nadu without a Chidambaram, or Karnataka without a Chinnaswamy?
More critically, the grassroots of the game, the club structure, is run wholly by an unsung, anonymous army of individuals who do everything from recruiting players to organising fixtures to more mundane things such as organising kit for players and food at grounds. A vast majority of these individuals go through a lifetime in the game without seeing one rupee of the billions that pour in at the highest level. They do so out of a genuine love for the game, a passion for administration and, to use a much-maligned word, enthusiasm to be positive agents of change. Aside from the sheer pleasure doing what is right, for these men and women, who still have families to feed and day jobs to do, the sole incentive is the chance, however minute, to progress to the next level, to aspire to a role in state administration and perhaps eventually something bigger. Now, of course, the scope of such a logical and welcome progression has been severely limited.
In many ways, the committee’s recommendations are similar to telling a 16-year-old cricketer that he will never play for India, irrespective of what he does in the few years ahead of him. To expect that individual to still put heart and soul into his vocation is beyond absurd. The courts, and those who had axes to grind with certain individuals in the BCCI, may be of the belief that Indian cricket has been saved. Decapitation is one way to cure a headache, but actually locating the origins of said pain and embarking on a sustainable method of treatment may be a wiser course of action..